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AA estate Stepping Stones nears historic status compromise with neighbor

In a town known for famous figures who lead discreet suburban lives,
Published by: Lohud.com Link to article
Written by: Rob Byser
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September 27, 2012

BEDFORD - In a town known for famous figures who lead discreet suburban lives, it would be hard to find a couple with more influence on society and a lower public profile than Bill and Lois Wilson.

But unlike the entertainment stars and the business greats who gate their Bedford estates to maintain privacy, the Wilson’s 8-acre home known as Stepping Stones is the town’s best-kept secret because of the anonymous requirement of the programs that the Wilsons’ co-founded, and because of the stigma still attached to alcoholism.

So the home’s status as an under-the-radar place where everyday people connect with the roots of recovery is unlikely to change now that a federal effort is nearly complete to crown Stepping Stones as a national landmark.

“By nature of its background, Stepping Stones is not the same as other sites that attract visitors like the Washington monument,” said Stepping Stones attorney Whitney Singleton.

“This is a discreet group of people,” Singleton said.

The effort to make Stepping Stones the first National Historic Landmark in the northern suburbs since composer Aaron Copland’s house in 2008 coincides with a compromise that Bedford planners are trying to reach about visiting hours between Stepping Stones and a neighbor who does not like philanthropic commotion in her back yard.

The two developments are connected only by coincidence.

But contained in the not-in-my-backyard battle between neighbor Diane Briganti and the people carrying out the dying wish of Lois Wilson to run her place for the greater good of the recovery community is a much larger story that the federal government wants to tell.

“All of our sites have national importance,” said Alexandra Lord, the branch chief of the National Historic Landmarks Program in Washington. “But when you talk about Alcoholics Anonymous, this site has international importance.”

The story starts decades before Briganti bought her ranch house on Oak Street across from the entrance of Stepping Stones, in an era when the conventional wisdom said that alcoholics could not stay sober.

Bill Wilson and an Ohio physician named Dr. Bob Smith had put together a spiritual program based on their own rock-bottom experiences that said alcoholics could recover by working together.

An actress who had benefited from the 12-step breakthrough and knew the Wilsons were homeless gave the couple a summer cottage in Bedford Hills on terms they could afford.

As the half-acre neighborhood grew up around the Wilson home, and society accepted the idea of alcoholism as a disease that could be beaten, Stepping Stones became the unofficial headquarters of the recovery movement.

By the time Briganti bought her house in 1984, Lois Wilson was a widow and had already made provisions for the Stepping Stones Foundation to continue after her death.

Officially, the Alcoholics Anonymous movement that Bill Wilson co-founded and the Al-Anon movement that Lois Wilson co-founded are separate from the Stepping Stones Foundation, which began running the Wilsons’ estate in 1990.

But in every other way the connections between the 12-step movement and the Wilsons’ home in Bedford are as close as they could be.

Stepping Stones is waiting for the signature of Ken Salazar, the secretary of the Interior, to become the 22nd National Historic Landmark in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties.
Briganti sees nothing positive about that.

“This is not a neighborhood for national use,” Briganti said. “This is a neighborhood for private use.”
Bedford’s planning director is putting a proposal together based on suggestions from both sides of Oak Street to submit to the Town Board as part of a special-use permit that Stepping Stones is applying for to improve parking on its site.

As part of that process, the Town Board will decide whether to regulate visitors who come to Stepping Stones for tours and the annual summer picnic that the Wilsons started in the heyday of the movement.

The board could make a decision as early as this fall.